The ideal archaeological museum

Engaging with the past is key to making museums relevant

The new Classical department at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. It raises an important question: what should an archaeological museum look like?

Josho Brouwers

At present, I live in Leiden, almost around the corner from the National Museum of Antiquities. It’s a beautiful museum with a great collection of ancient objects and even some architecture, such as a complete Egyptian temple from the Augustan period. For much of 2015, the museum was closed as it was being renovated. A few months again, the doors were reopened.

The Egyptian department is still closed, but the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans can now be found in a revamped permanent exhibition, grouped together under the heading “Classical world”. Most of the exhibition is located on the first floor of the building, though one room dedicated to the Aegean Bronze and Iron Ages, as well as the Archaic period can be found on the second floor, directly above the room dedicated to ancient Greece in the Classical period and later (that makes no sense from a stratigraphical point of view, but I’ve been told it was done this way because of practical considerations).

I was looking forward to seeing the new exhibition, expecting great things. Sadly, I ended up being rather disappointed. Visually, it all looks fine, though the walls in the Greek department have been painted a dark blue, which – combined with the relatively small space and the lack of windows – give it a bit of a claustrophobic feeling.

The design of the thing is modern as far as graphics and typesetting are concerned. The content, however, is decidedly old hat, and the texts contain errors and espouse ideas that make clear the creators are completely out of touch with academic debates of the past twenty or thirty years (if not more). Sometimes, the English translation of Dutch texts are different.

The displays themselves are very old fashioned and consist largely of shelves with objects. These objects are accompanied by descriptions that are to general as to be worthless. For example, the Greek department has a display case dedicated to the ancient Greek man, which completely ignores, among other things, differences in class.

If you didn’t know anything about ancient Greece, a visit to this exhibition gives you the idea that Greece was inhabited by a more or less homogeneous group of Greeks and, oh yes, there were also some slaves dangling at the bottom of society (always an unfortunate wrinkle when trying to extol the virtues of our Classical ancestors).

The new exhibition features great graphic design, but the exhibits themselves are conventional, almost boring, with texts that are frequently outdated or in need of nuance. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

Let me give another example. The way in which Greek pottery is exhibited is, in my opinion, very problematic. The beautifully painted pots are displayed as if they are art with a capital A. But in this manner, the museum completely ignores debates of the past thirty years. Francis and Vickers, for example, have argued that in antiquity, pottery had a low status, and scholars like Michael Shanks have tried to show that the appreciation of ancient pottery as art is wholly a modern invention. I would expect a modern archaeological museum to devote some space to this issue, but it’s simply ignored here entirely.

Furthermore, the emphasis in the Greek department in particular is put squarely on art history. The Greeks spread through the Mediterranean and made pretty things. The museum has, of course, a long history when it comes to art, but the emphasis that is now placed on art history is at odds with what is claimed to be the ambition of the museum.

On the website of the National Museum of Antiquities, it is written that the museum strives to bring the ancient world and archaeology to live. But on the museum’s Facebook page, it calls itself a “History Museum” as well as an “Art Museum”. The about section on the Facebook page refers to the museum as the national centre for archaeology. So which is it? I would argue that the museum is, of course, primarily an archaeological museum, comparable to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, for example.

Rather than continue my critique of the new “Classical World” exhibition, I think it’s more useful to explain what I would expect from a modern archaeological museum. I’ve tackled this issue before, but looking back on it, I don’t find that piece very satisfactory any more. I feel like it doesn’t adequately articulate what, in my opinion, an archaeological museum is and what it ought to do. So let’s go back to the drawing board and look at it from a fresh perspective.

What is an archaeological museum?

In order to better understand what it was I was looking for, I started to reread some stuff that, for the most part, I hadn’t looked at for a while. One of these was the book Re-Constructing Archaeology (second edition, 1992) by Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley. In this book, the authors devote one chapter specifically to archaeological museums. They regard the museum as “the main institutional connection between archaeology as a profession and discipline, and wider society.”

Finally, I understood what the problem was. The National Museum of Antiquities, like most (all?) archaeological museums, pretend that archaeology is something that deals with the past. Objects are displayed with the idea that these things, in and of themselves, reveal something about the past to us. One series of display cases in the new exhibition, for example, is tellingly called, “The vases speak” in Dutch. As if objects intrinsically tell us something and all we have to do is listen.

Shanks and Tilley also warn that most museums try to “commodify” the past. The past is encapsulated in an object that it put in a display case. A small plaque is added that explains to the visitor that yes, this bowl that you’re looking at is indeed a bowl. The visitor becomes a consumer and the past, embodied by the objects on display, becomes a product that is sold to the consumer by the museum. It’s a one-way transaction: thanks for buying a ticket, and be sure to check out the museum shop on the way out.

The point that Shanks and Tilley make in their book is that archaeology is a social practice in the present. When creating a modern archaeological museum, this basic idea should be kept in mind and exhibitions should be designed with greater care. In the new Classical World exhibition, each part is dedicated to a single narrative. For the Greeks, the emphasis is on art history. For the Etruscans, we read how unusual they were. For the Romans, the size and scope of their empire is highlighted.

I’m not saying that such narratives aren’t valid. But what I am saying is that an archaeological museum can – and I would even say, should – be a lot more. Central to my idea of what a good archaeological museum should be like is the observation that I owe to Shanks and Tilley, namely that archaeology isn’t strictly speaking about the past, but is instead a social practice set in the present. Let’s explore this a little further.

A social practice in the present

Is the past objective? Without delving too deeply into philosophical matters, ask yourself whether or not your own upbringing and social context influences the ways in which you look at the past. You can also assume a more historical perspective.

Let’s look at Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Is that a “neutral” treatise of the Roman Empire, or does it come across as the product of someone working in the eighteenth century? Do you think that modern scholars are any different? I pick, more or less at random, Eric Cline’s book 1177 BC, which deals with various matters concerning the end of the Bronze Age, including climate change.

There is no such thing as objective information. This was already obvious to Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously wrote that “There are no facts, only interpretations.” You need only look at modern news reports to know that information is always filtered, always subjective, never neutral. History and archaeology and any other discipline, whether or not ostensibly dealing with the past or otherwise, are exactly the same. Why else, for example, would there be so many different opinions regarding how the ancient Greeks fought their wars?

How we look at the past is thus dependent on the present. We therefore have to be critical. It is not sufficient for an archaeological museum to simply display ancient objects and then claim that those tell us about the past. Those objects were selected by someone, with a specific purpose, with a particular aim. Who selected those objects and why? What does this object have to do with the one next to it? And so on. What an archaeological museum should show, first and foremost, is how it arrived at its displays. It needs to show, in other words, what archaeology is.

Let’s give a concrete example. I’ll return to a subject that’s intimately familiar to me, namely ancient Greek warfare. At present, there are two main camps when it comes to how modern commentators view ancient warfare. Stated very simply, one camp believes that the appearance of Greek hoplites (i.e. heavily-armed warriors) in ca. 700 BC went hand-in-hand with sociopolitical changes, while the other camp doesn’t think that was the case. Such a difference in opinion is usually ignored in an archaeological museum, which usually picks either one narrative or another, without explaining why the choice was made.

An array of Etruscan urns and a sacrophagus lid. The objects are great, but at no point are the visitors to the museum invited to actually engage with the material, because the texts tend to avoid problematizing the objects, the contexts in which they were found, or even the fact that they ended up in the Netherlands for some reason. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

In an ideal archaeological museum, however, in which the discipline takes centre stage, the emphasis would be rather on method than conclusions. In order to show to visitors that modern scholars disagree about even very fundamental things, you could incorporate the actual debate in your exhibition. I’m thinking, for example, of a display case that shows objects related to ancient Greek warfare. One side of the display case features plaques that describe the objects from the point of view of the first camp described above, while the other side discusses the same objects, but from the other point of view.

In this way, visitors would understand that objects don’t have an intrinsic value – instead, it’s up to us to give these things meaning in the first place. (Ian Hodder would say that material culture is meaningfully constituted, i.e. objects aren’t just things we make, but things that are integral to us and related to our social lives: they shape us as much as we shape them.)

Those interpretations aren’t static, but change through the course of time. One could, for example, highlight an Attic red-figure vase and make clear that some modern commentators believe that it had limited value in ancient times, but is today regarded as high art and considered very valuable. The main thing is to demonstrate that ancient objects gain meaning only by engaging with them.

You could take this further and make clear how interpretations are dependent on one’s own particular views and opinions. In the field of Greek warfare, to use that example again, the idea that hoplites represented some kind of force for sociopolitical change seems to be popular especially among writers who lean toward the conservative spectrum of modern politics.

The point is to show that archaeology or history is not an objective science in which people simply “discover” the past, but rather a discipline in which people actively give meaning to the past. Once this is made clear, it’s less problematic, for example, to adopt an art-historical perspective, as the National Museum of Antiquities has done with its Greek department.

If you don’t want to involve modern politics too much, you could instead focus on the ways in which archaeological museums acquired their collections in the first place. Where do all of these ancient objects come from? What role did colonial activities play in acquiring these objects? Should objects that have been looted be given back to the country of origin?

I hasten to add that a museum doesn’t necessarily have to answer these questions, but it should at least raise those issues and try to get the visitor involved in the debate.

The past belongs to everyone

Because that, too, is vitally important: the visitor of an archaeological museum needs to be more than a passive consumer of what the museum has on offer. That doesn’t mean that a museum needs to develop more interactive displays of the kinds that I have critiqued earlier.

Tapping a touch screen to get more information or pushing a button to turn on a light doesn’t actually get the visitor involved with archaeology as a social practice. In order to do that, we need to get the visitor to think. I’m thinking in particular of situations where a visitor would need to give a descriptive text to objects, or where they have to weigh different interpretations and pick a favourite, or where they could somehow engage with the objects themselves (real or copies).

One thing that Shanks and Tilley rightfully emphasize is that archaeology shouldn’t be seen as the exclusive domain of a small cadre of professionals. The past isn’t the property of archaeologists (or historians), but belongs to everyone. For example, in the Netherlands, it has in recent years been decided by the government that the earlier narrative about the Roman era in this country, which focused on the story of the Batavians, needed to be replaced by one that instead focuses on the Limes, the Roman border system.

But what does the average Dutch person think about this? He or she may well be far more interested in what was discovered a little further down the street. For an archaeological museum, one could imagine what a tourist might think of the permanent and temporary exhibitions. What does a Greek or Italian look for when visiting the ancient Greek or Roman departments? How do they view the collection and is there any way we can also get them involved somehow? One simple way, for example, is to put a whiteboard near a display case with a pen, and invite people to give their own interpretation of the object on display.

Closing thoughts

This has all turned out to be very long-winded, but I think it’s possible to summarize it all in a single sentence: an archaeological museum should contextualize our knowledge of the past. There are multiple ways in which a museum might accomplish this, as I hope to have shown in the examples given above. Only in this way, in my opinion, can an archaeological museum have a lasting impact on its visitors and remain relevant in our modern society. More and more people receive higher education and are thus also more critical towards interpretations and narratives foisted on them from on high.

My ideal archaeological museum would therefore not have any permanent exhibitions, but instead consist solely of a collection of temporary exhibitions. Every other month or so, a small part of the exhibition should be changed. The ideal museum should, like the discipline of archaeology itself, be constantly subject to change. Some might object that the costs for such an approach would be too high, but I think that in this day and age, using mobile display cases and cheap signs or display screens, it should be relatively easy and cost-effective to change part of the exhibition every so often.

Curators should be active and, ideally, a museum should also ask outsiders – including members of the general audience, for example via a lottery – to come in and help in arranging new exhibitions. And in addition, the ideal archaeological museum should try to find some way to incorporate its storage into the exhibition, for example by making sure that objects are stored in glass display cases, so that objects are behind locked doors, but still visible to all.